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California or Bust

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California or Bust

What I learned from a youth spent hitchhiking cross-country September 3, 2021
Arts and Culture

“People do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs. They go to offices, quarrel with their wives, and eat cabbage soup,” wrote Anton Chekhov. I was just out of college and living at home; my mother had a bridge game scheduled for the next day. I decided I didn’t want to be around for that. In fact, I would rather hitchhike to an ocean—any ocean.

I liked the idea of hitchhiking to Boston. James Taylor sang about New England: “[The turnpike was covered] from Stockbridge to Boston.” The Ohio Turnpike was often covered from Youngstown to Toledo, but nobody sang about that.

I liked California, too. My dad had always told me to move there. My father’s best childhood friend was stationed there during the war. He stayed afterward and raved about the blue skies.

I picked up lots of tips about hitchhiking along the way. It was illegal to hitchhike from rest areas or in front of toll booths. You had to stand a few hundred yards away from the toll booths. The best way to get a ride was to team up with a female, but I did that only once. Amazingly, I got some rides with truckers.

I typically got rides from other young people. I never felt in danger or wound up in a car with an old guy pointing a gun at me. I got rides from hippies—often called “longhairs” and “freaks” back then. I was a hippie-poseur: I inhaled, but never bought, pot.

Prior to hitting the road, my dad got angry at me because I wouldn’t comparison-shop for traveler’s checks at the banks to save five dollars. “You aren’t a millionaire yet,” he said, scratching himself. He was wearing just underwear. That was another reason to leave town.

I had a mummy sleeping bag. I slept—or tried to—under a picnic bench at 3 AM. With a mummy bag, you’re the mummy, and you can’t move. I heard a deer—or was it a bear? I heard semis shifting in the night.

Flagstaff, Arizona, didn’t allow hitchhiking. I had to walk through town. In Needles, California, I spent eight hours at the on-ramp in 100-degree heat. I counted Roadway, Consolidated Freightways, and “Humpin’ to Please” trucks. It was a complete waste of time.

No driver ever told me the secret of life. A man in Arkansas said that he was the youngest person to have a heart attack, but he offered no insight. Jim Mandich, the star Miami Dolphins tight end, gave me a ride once, and we talked about “studs”—his term for his fellow big-time athletes. Studs die, I learned eventually, in 2011, when Mandich died of cancer at 62.

I last hitchhiked around 1975. I probably did it for too long: my knowledge of long-distance trucking companies has yet to come in handy. But I do know where North Platte, Nebraska, is.

Photo: palidachan/iStock

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